Commentary

Bluegrass State eyes upset in round one

Updated: February 11, 2009, 10:31 AM ET
By Mark Tennis | ESPNRISE.com

Despite the obvious passion many have for the sport in their state, Indiana couldn't pull off the upset in last week's Great State Debate first-round matchup against No. 1 seed New York. This week, we'll find out if Kentucky can surprise against No. 2 seed Illinois.

Kentucky earned its spot in the Great State Debate based on winning a separate vote over five other states.

The winner of this week's Great State Debate will take on either No. 3 California or No. 6 New Jersey in the semifinals.

The case for Illinois

They say what plays in Peoria will play in the rest of the country, and it's that same convergence of city vs. rural that makes Illinois so strong in basketball.

Chicago is obviously one of the greatest basketball cities in the world, but Illinois also has the same small-town, homespun passion for the sport as neighboring Indiana does.

Two of those small-town schools, Centralia and Quincy, are among the top five winningest high schools in the nation. Collinsville, which is just east of St. Louis, also is on that list but can't really be called a small-town school anymore.

One key difference between Chicago and the two other U.S. cities it is most often compared with -- New York and Philadelphia -- is that Chicago high schools have competed against schools from the rest of Illinois in the Illinois High School Association state tournament for many years. This has only helped to improve the quality of play everywhere.

Chicago schools frequently land among the top-10-ranked teams in the country, especially a few years ago when No. 1 NBA draft pick Derrick Rose was playing at Simeon High School. The state's most recent No. 1 team in the nation, however, was Manual of Peoria, which topped the FAB 50 in 1997.

The IHSA state tourney also is renowned for being the oldest of its kind in the country, with a founding date of 1908. In 1939, an essay on the tourney in an IHSA publication called it "March Madness." Today, that phrase is co-owned by both the NCAA and the IHSA, but it was in Illinois where it was coined, and there's a reason for that: In the Land of Lincoln, it really is March Madness.

Illinois' best

Derrick Rose
Ross DettmanDerrick Rose starred at Simeon High School (Chicago) before being drafted No. 1 overall by the Bulls.
Mark Aguirre (Westinghouse, Chicago)
Quinn Buckner (Thornridge, Dolton)
Maurice Cheeks (DuSable, Chicago)
Doug Collins (Benton)
Terry Cummings (Carver, Chicago)
Eddy Curry (Thornwood, South Holland)
Michael Finley (Proviso East, Maywood)
Kevin Garnett (Farragut, Chicago)
Tim Hardaway (Carver, Chicago)
Juwan Howard (Vocational, Chicago)
Dan Issel (Batavia)
Corey Maggette (Fenwick, Oak Park)
Darius Miles (East St. Louis)
Glenn "Doc" Rivers (Proviso East, Maywood)
Derrick Rose (Simeon, Chicago)
Cazzie Russell (Carver, Chicago)
Isiah Thomas (St. Joseph, Westchester)
Dwyane Wade (Richards, Oak Lawn)
Antoine Walker (Mt. Carmel, Chicago)

Top five current Illinois players
(Based on ESPNU Scouts Inc. recruiting rankings)
1. Jack Cooley (Glenbrook South, Glenview), 6-8, Sr.
2. Chris Colvin (Whitney Young, Chicago), 6-3, Sr.
3. Brandon Paul (Warren), 6-3, Sr.
4. Jereme Richmond (Waukegan), 6-6, Jr.
5. Crandall Head (Crane, Chicago), 6-3, Jr.

Top five current Illinois teams
(Based on ESPN RISE FAB 50)
1. Thornton (Harvey)
2. Centennial (Champaign)
3. Whitney Young (Chicago)
4. Neuqua Valley (Naperville)
5. Manual (Peoria)

The case for Kentucky

For "basketball in its purest, and most endearing, form," fans need look no farther than the state of Kentucky.

That's how veteran prep writer Mike Fields of the Lexington Herald-Leader describes hoops in the Bluegrass State.

"Kentucky's Sweet 16 is unquestionably the premier state high school tournament in the nation," Fields said. "There's no watering down the competition. Everybody plays for one championship, and that's the way it's been for 92 years.

"Small schools have a chance to play giant-killer, and it does happen, even in these modern times," Fields notes. "Paintsville, with an enrollment of fewer than 300 students, won the 1996 title. Elliott County, with just over 300 students, has been rated No. 1 part of this season. When 16 teams from across the state gather in Rupp Arena every March, more than 100,000 fans attend the four-day hoopsalooza."

That's Kentucky basketball. And that's part of why the Bluegrass State should be in the conversation for any Great State Debate.

Kentucky's best
Butch Beard (Breckenridge County, Hardinsburg)
Ralph Beard (Male, Louisville)
Rex Chapman (Apollo, Owensboro)
"King" Kelly Coleman (Wayland)
Dave Cowens (Newport Central Catholic, Newport)
Jack Givens (Bryan Station, Lexington)
Darrell Griffith (Male, Louisville)
Cliff Hagen (Owensboro)
Allan Houston (Ballard, Louisville)
Wallace "Wah Wah" Jones (Harland)
Wes Unseld (Seneca, Louisville)

Top five current Kentucky players
(Based on ESPNU Scouts Inc. recruiting rankings)
1. Jon Hood (Madisonville North Hopkins, Madisonville), 6-7, Sr.
2. Jacob Jenkins (Manual, Louisville), 6-3, Sr.
3. Vee Sanford (Lexington Catholic, Lexington), 6-3, Sr.
4. Eric Mosley (Moore, Louisville), 6-0, Sr.
5. Elijah Pittman (Holmes, Covington), 6-6, Jr.

Top five current Kentucky teams
(Based on ESPN RISE FAB 50)
1. Elliott County (Sandy Hook)
2. Scott County (Georgetown)
3. Holmes (Covington)
4. Eastern (Louisville)
5. Jeffersontown

Mark Tennis is the deputy sports editor for ESPNRISE.com